Trickle of marijuana patients reveals stigma, supporters say

By Carla K. Johnson The Associated Press

CHICAGO – Supporters of Illinois' medical marijuana program are trying to inspire interest among patients by hosting an educational event, even as the latest official count shows a tapering-off in the number of people who want to use the plant legally.

Illinois sent about 200 approval letters in May to patients who qualify to use medical cannabis, state officials announced Wednesday. That brings the total to 2,500 and reflects a slowing pace for both submitted applications and government approvals.

Lawmakers approved the pilot program two years ago. Because of delays, businesses aren't yet selling the drug and aren't expected to until later this year.

The low numbers reflect the public's unfamiliarity with marijuana's benefits, said Julie Prom of Americans for Safe Access-Illinois, an advocacy group that supports legal medical marijuana. The group plans a daylong event Saturday in Chicago – the Illinois Medical Cannabis Patient Summit – to answer questions for patients who've been on the fence.

"Some people don't realize how beneficial cannabis is," Prom said. "This is about getting rid of that stigma."

The Illinois Department of Public Health said Wednesday it has issued about 2,500 approval letters to qualifying marijuana patients since September. About 21,800 people have logged onto the patient application website. Of those, about 3,100 have submitted an application – just 100 more than last month.

In comparison, the department approved 300 new patients in April and 400 new patients in March. The number of submitted applications has slowed down, too.

The Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago is co-hosting Saturday's event. A $25 workshop for patients and caregivers will be followed by a free forum for military veterans.

Speakers include Dr. Sue Sisley, an Arizona psychiatrist and a co-investigator on an upcoming study of marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Illinois marijuana business owners are helping support the event, but don't have control over the content, Prom said.